Real Madrid – Barcelona: Real Madrid Come Clutch to Clinch Clásico Victory (2-1)
As the giants of Spanish football locked horns once more, the world of football came to a halt. Pitting the two challengers to Atlético Madrid’s title bid against each other, this was set to be the most enthralling El Clásico in years. And living up to its billing, the two teams offered up an action-packed spectacle, in which rampant transitions trumped persistent possession.
Tactical analysis and match report by Emmanuel Adeyemi-Abere.
Real Madrid have been in their element towards the end of the season. Stride for stride with their city rivals, the hosts are firmly in the title picture. Meanwhile, they exuded their class on the continent in midweek, putting Liverpool to the sword in the first leg of their quarter-final tie. Tasked with another major clash, they aimed to rise to the occasion once more.
Entering the new year, Barcelona were in the mire, ten points adrift of Atlético Madrid in sixth place. But so far in 2021, they have been the outstanding side in LaLiga, dropping just two points in fourteen games. Taking eight more points than any other LaLiga team in that time, they have worked their way up to second place, a point off the top. Clear this hurdle, and the summit was theirs to take, for now.
Though a 3-5-2 shape was a possible option, Zinedine Zidane set up his players in a 4-3-3 formation. With no change to the shape from midweek also came few personnel tweaks. The one alteration saw Marco Asensio drop to the bench as the manager put Federico Valverde on the right side of the midfield.
Ronald Koeman has relied on a back three system in recent months to great success, using a 3-4-3 shape for this derby. Likewise, the manager seems to have settled on a starting eleven, picking the same side for four matches in a row. However, he made one change for this game, replacing Antoine Griezmann with central defender Ronald Araújo.
Valverde 2 Alba 0
Barcelona were the ones to take the initiative in the opening stages of the game. Off the ball, they pressed in a 3-5-2 shape. Messi and Dembélé stayed highest to close down the central defenders, the wing-backs tracked Madrid’s fullbacks, and the central midfielders went man-for-man.
But they also set about controlling the game with the ball, playing in a 3-4-2-1 shape. With Araújo in the middle of the back three, de Jong had moved up into the midfield but often started deeper, close to Sergio Busquets. Pedri and Lionel Messi then occupied the halfspaces, If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. with the freedom to drift deep in front of Madrid’s midfield.
Though they looked to squeeze Barcelona’s goal kicks, Madrid’s high pressing again showed flaws. As such, it was not uncommon to see them defend in their half from a 4-1-4-1 shape, which had several nuances due to its man-to-man style.
Real Madrid’s low block A low block refers to a team that retreats deep in their own half out of possession, generally only disrupting their opponents around their own box. in the first half with Valverde tracking Alba, narrow back four and lots of man marking.
Perhaps the most apparent one was on the right flank, where the manager used Valverde in a similar role to the one he played out in the 2-0 Clásico win from last year. The right midfielder often dropped back on the outside of the right back, forming a back five as he marked Alba.
Since Valverde could cover the left wing-back’s runs into depth, Lucas Vázquez could tuck inside to his left while also having the license to step out aggressively into space in front of him. As such, he usually jumped out of the backline to close down Pedri between the lines. Blunting the left edge of Barcelona’s attack, these two played a central role in creating the first goal of the game as well.
In the 13th minute, Messi slipped the ball around Vázquez, looking to pry Madrid open, but the referee awarded no foul for the right back blocking his path. Valverde eventually picked up the ball wide on the right, driving towards the halfway line. Alba leaped forward to close him down, only to mistime his duel. He then sent Vázquez steaming down the right flank to drill a cross into the box, where Benzema ran across Araújo before flicking the most audacious of backheels past Marc-André ter Stegen. Madrid’s talisman had drawn first blood.
Vinícius wreaks havoc on the break
After taking the lead, Madrid contentedly sat off in their half, allowing a rising star to come to the fore once more. Off the back of a midweek brace, Vinícius Junior stole the limelight. Going from strength to strength, the left winger proved to be a thorn in Barcelona’s side on the break.
Messi drifted to the left halfspace, hoping for a change of fortune as he picked up the ball between the lines. But it was to no avail. As Madrid’s block caged him out once more, Casemiro sent away Vinícius on the right to lead a rapid-fire counterattack. The winger broke away from Mingueza, gunning his accelerator to break into the final third. The one-third of the pitch that is closest to the opposition’s goal. Faced with two retreating central defenders, he weaved between them, drawing a foul on the edge of the box.
Kroos then stepped forward to line up a shot from the set-piece. The midfielder hit a right-footed effort at goal, which took a deflection off of Dest’s back as he turned to block the strike. Catching ter Stegen off as he moved to his left, Alba could only direct the ball past his teammate as he jumped to head the danger clear.
Seven minutes later, Madrid had almost finished off the game as a contest. As his teammates won back the ball, Benzema played a layoff pass into Modrić, who sent Vinícius away on the left. The winger tore into the final third before finding Valverde on the edge of the box.
His strike took a deflection off Lenglet, slamming the post before ter Stegen smothered a follow-up effort from Vázquez. Taking only two shots in the first half hour, while also vulnerable at the back, the away team needed to spark a change.
Koeman looked to inspire a comeback from the bench, bringing Dest off for Griezmann as his first substitution. This change then saw a shift in formation, similar to the switch last time out against Real Valladolid, as the guests now set up with four at the back.
Barcelona’s adjusted offensive structure.
Alba and Mingueza played as the fullbacks, while ahead of them, de Jong often made forays off the ball into the final third. Messi would drop between the lines, with Dembélé staying high and wide to his right, and Griezmann pulling inside on his left to free up space for Alba.
Though they were still open at the back in transition, the visitors were finally able to breach Madrid’s backline. Mingueza drove inside away from Mendy, sliding in Dembélé down the right before moving up to the box. Eder Militão cleared the right winger’s cross, which worked its way out to Alba.
The left back whipped a delivery back into the area, where Mingueza, who was lurking free, directed the ball past Courtois and into the net. With half an hour left, Barcelona had cut the deficit in half.
Chaotic last thirty, dramatic finale
The last half hour was an open affair, as both sides traded exciting moments in the attack. But with the result on a knife’s edge till the last, a thrilling finale was in the offing.
With seconds of the ninety left to go, Casemiro lunged in to block Mingueza’s path. But he could only foul the right back, earning a second yellow card. Madrid would have to get over the line while down to ten men. Courtois saved Messi’s free kick, but his team would endure one final scare.
Messi launched a long ball into the box, where Lenglet nodded it down into substitute Ilaix Moriba. The midfielder fired a volley at goal, leaving Courtois helpless between the posts, but the shot ricocheted off the crossbar. Shutting out the rebound, Madrid had sealed a precious win.
The three points see Real Madrid go top of the table for now. Notably, this result marks yet another occasion on which Zidane’s strategic and tactical choices bore fruit in a tricky duel. In this regard, special credit has to go to the selection and display of Valverde, whose industry and intelligence proved to be an effective antidote to Alba’s threat once more.
Koeman’s men will be bitterly disappointed with this defeat, losing ground on both Madrid rivals in the title race. Their unbeaten streak has also come to an end, taking their first loss while using a three at the back setup. The new system has rightly taken credit for boosting their fortunes, but Madrid ruthlessly exposed their ongoing issue of controlling transitions, which the manager must look to fix going forwards.
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